China and NASA are developing next-gen Voyager-like spacecraft. Which is better?

Space Race 2.0 is heating up.
Brad Bergan
A computer rendering and potential design of China's forthcoming probe.Scientia Sinica

There's no use denying it: Space Race 2.0 is heating up.

But while the focus remains on public-private partnerships in low-Earth orbit, space junk, and finally human settlements on the moon and Mars, a remnant of that original space race spirit is beginning to awaken: the push to explore the outer edges of our solar system, and beyond.

Last year, China announced it was developing a pair of spacecraft capable of exploring the very edge of our solar system. According to an official industry newspaper called China Space News Friday, the mission "Interstellar Express" promised the potential to enter interstellar space by the middle of the century.

Of course, NASA already did it.

`NASA launched Voyager 1 in 1977, in addition to Voyager 2 a month earlier — two intrepid spacecraft that toured the outer solar system through the late eighties. Both spacecraft are now in interstellar space and still sending what data they can back, with most equipment shut down to preserve power. But NASA might not be done with deep space missions yet.

In December 2021, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) met in New Orleans and revealed its nearly 500-page mission concept report that proposes the development of an Interstellar Probe.

Ideally, nothing should prevent both missions from happening with total success. But, pending approval and complete development, there will be no denying the ultimate dilemma: which one will do it better, China or NASA?

Charting the course of the sun with NASA's interstellar probes

"Interstellar Probe will allow us to understand where we come from and where we are going," said Johns Hopkins University's Pontus Brandt, who works in the college's Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), according to a recent report from Scientific American. "It is a mission to go beyond the boundaries of the heliosphere, the vast magnetic bubble that encases the entire solar system."

By sending a probe to examine the nature of interstellar space beyond the sun's heliosphere, Interstellar Probe could reveal what lies ahead for the entire solar system, as the sun and its planets glide into the uncharted territory of our Milky Way.

In the last 60,000 years, our sun has glided through what's called the local interstellar cloud (LIC) — this is a colossal region of dust and gas surrounded by an empty sphere of space that supernovae etched out of the Milky Way millions of years ago. But in roughly 2,000 years, our solar system will depart this volume of interstellar space and enter a new region.

"We have no clue what's going to take place" when it does, said Brandt, in the Scientific American report. But the Earth could be subjected to a radically different environment, where more cosmic rays that reshape planetary climates and burn through DNA might abound. As for the sun's heliosphere: that might change too, potentially swelling or shrinking to unprecedented levels. "We just don't know," added Brandt.

NASA Voyager Probes
Both Voyager 1 and 2 explored our solar system before moving to interstellar space. Source: NASA

NASA's Interstellar Probe could reach 1,000 AU in 150 years

Suppose the Interstellar Probe — a concept representing the work of more than 1,000 scientists — is ultimately selected by NASA for further development and eventual launch. In that case, it could exceed the scientific accomplishments of the legendary Voyager probes. Neither Voyager 1 nor Voyager 2 were designed to fully explore interstellar space — roughly 120 astronomical units (AU, or the distance from the Earth to the sun) away.

And, the "Voyagers accidentally got there," said APL's McNutt in the report, who's Interstellar Probe's principal investigator. "They just barely scratched the surface." The flight plan for the new mission would begin with a launch in 2036. The Interstellar Probe would weigh roughly 1,900 pounds and move at 37,282 miles per hour. That speed would easily top the previous speed record for NASA of 26,719 mph, set by the New Horizons spacecraft.

If successfully launched, the Interstellar Probe would enter Jupiter's space in seven months and reach the sun's heliopause in 15 years — a feat that took Voyager 1 an astounding 35 years.

For some of us, that's a lifetime. And Interstellar Probe would overtake Voyager before the 22nd century hits. Additionally, it could reach a distance of more than 300 AU before continuing to explore up to 1,000 AU from our little blue planet in the next 150 years. For context, imagine receiving science data on space beyond our solar system from a spacecraft launched by civil war veterans. It boggles the mind.

China's Interstellar Express

China's Interstellar Express aims to send two spacecraft to the edge of our solar system, the front, and rear of the sun's heliosphere. This could reveal how space dominated by the sun's solar wind behaves in unprecedented detail. And according to the 2021 report from China, it aims to travel 100 AUs away from the Earth by 2049. This would coincide with the schedule of the Interstellar Probe — and put NASA's and China's probes in the heliosphere at the same time.

However, we've yet to see an official launch date for China's Interstellar Express. Still, an overview of the mission presented during the European Planetary Science Congress in 2019 suggested China might launch in 2024, enabling a flyby of Jupiter in 2029. The second probe would do the same in 2033 before visiting Neptune's planetary system in 2028.

China hints at a Saturn flyby in the cards

But, on Tuesday, Sun Zezhou of China's space program told the nation's state-sponsored CCTV that the agency would explore Jupiter and Saturn before traveling to the edge of the solar system, according to a post from the agency on China's Weibo social media platform.

China's Interstellar Express would repeat our outer solar system's "grand tour" not attempted since the Voyager probes in the 1980s. But unlike NASA's potential Interstellar Probe, China's extra-solar adventure would involve a 110-pound spacecraft powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), launched atop Long March 3B or Long March 5 rockets, according to a Space News report.

It seems the Interstellar Probe proposal would travel farther, faster, and discover more scientific data. It would explore our sun and its heliosphere and scout deep space. Cosmic horizons of knowledge - At the end of a solar day, it's a bit silly to need NASA's spacecraft to be better or worse than China's. At least when it comes to purely scientific missions. So the best we can do is hope that both go forward without a hitch, to expand our knowledge of humanity's place in the galaxy to unimaginable levels.

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